8th St. walks away from shoes toward something new

8th st. sign

BY ELISSA STEIN  |  The windows of Barnes & Noble are covered with Kraft paper. The longstanding hat shop across the way recently closed. Shuttered storefronts dot the west end of the block. Looking east, from the corner of Sixth Ave., Eighth St. appears to have been overtaken by scaffolding and “For Rent” signs. The view from MacDougal St. is much the same, and at Fifth Avenue, full-scale construction projects have taken over both north and south corners.

Once a vibrant Downtown destination, at first glance, this particular block appears to have hit hard times.

William Kelley, the executive director of the Village Alliance business improvement district, attributes many of the business losses to changes in shopping habits. Now that so much can be bought online, the successful shoe and fashion mecca this stretch used to be doesn’t work anymore.

According to LindaAnn Loschiavo, a journalist and Village historian, the transformation of Eighth St. into a thriving footwear destination was a comedown from when the boulevard was considered the gateway to the Village; when there were bustling bookstores, overflowing nightclubs, packed restaurants and successful merchants drawing crowds Downtown. Eighth St. was where Barbra Streisand made her New York City debut at the Bon Soir, and later where midnight showings of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” packed the 8th Street Playhouse.

But, if one looks more closely, Kelley asserts, there’s a quiet resurgence going on. Recently new tenants have been moving in, and more are in the way in the coming weeks and months. Bill Abramson, of Buchbinder & Warren, who represents property owners on the block, has been seeking out and placing businesses with a slant toward artisanal food and services. Both Kelley and Abramson mentioned eclectic merchants from Brooklyn as an inspiration for reinvention.

Soon to open are a Japanese bakery, a Persian cultural center and a Peruvian restaurant. Stumptown Coffee will soon join the recently opened Burger Joint, home of the classic Parker Meridian burgers. Other relatively new arrivals that are going strong are the Greenwich Project, a restaurant featuring live music, Netta, an exclusive eatery masked behind curtains, Pour George, a sports bar, Amelie, a wine lounge, and The Growler Station, a craft beer emporium.

Marlton House, most recently a New School dorm and before that an S.R.O. (single-room-occupancy) hotel —where arts luminaries like Jack Kerouac, John Barrymore and Edna St. Vincent Millay once stayed — will soon reopen as a historic boutique hotel with a midrange price point. An adjacent restaurant is weeks away from completion. Analogue, a jazz lounge, an artisanal yogurt outlet and a Wisconsin cheese melt spot are also in the works. Juice and gourmet popcorn outposts have already opened their doors. Even the long defunct TLA Video site has a new tenant — a Beth Israel Medical walk-in clinic — located in the same building as Jimi Hendrix’s Electric Lady Studios.

To celebrate the block’s resurgence the Village Alliance is hosting two “Positively 8th Street” street fairs, Sat., June 15, and Sat., 22. Don’t expect the usual socks and mozzareppa — local shops will be sharing their wares and services out of doors. Loschiavo sees these events as a throwback to Eighth St.’s successful past, when businesses hosted happenings, like book readings, author signings, culinary demonstrations and flower arranging classes to encourage patrons to make repeat visits. Not only did this drive traffic to the block, local newspapers covered these events in things-to-do-in-the-city sections, which meant free advertising for proprietors. Perhaps, and hopefully, these new merchants can learn a lesson or two from those long-past glory days and Eighth St. will become a popular destination once again.